Staying Healthy & Active: Women’s Health Issues After 55 & How To Prevent Them
Women spend a lifetime looking after others and often ignore their own wellbeing. Here’s some good advice from our experts on women’s health issues after 55 and how to prevent them.
The silver years are getting better and better, thanks to advances in nutrition and medicine. Add to this a growing awareness to stay healthy and intentional lifestyles, and you have higher life expectancies and more full lives. But this doesn’t mean that the usual senior health issues are disappearing into thin air. In fact, it’s just as important today, for silvers of all ages to stay on top of their heath. We speak to experts on women’s health issues after 55 and how to prevent them.
“It’s important for women to take care of themselves. A lifetime of looking after their families, often means that they’ve neglected themselves, which leads to health issues as they grow older,” says, Dr. Sangeeta Gupta, a Chandigarh-based physician, who works extensively with women of all ages.
“Some of the common health issues that women above the age of 55 years suffer from include the flu, osteoporosis, heart disease and diabetes.”
Dr. Anupama Gangavati, MD and Geriatric Consultant with Apollo Hospitals, Bangalore, explains why this age group of women are more susceptible to health issues. “Ability of the body to bounce back to normal after an illness or a stressor is homeostasis, and this ability decreases as one ages due to decreased reserve and hence older women are more prone to diseases and complications of these diseases.”
So if you are looking for better ways to nourish yourself and prevent those age-related diseases, here’s how you can do so.
Flu/Pneumonia: The flu is a highly-infectious health issue, brought on by sudden symptoms like sore throat, body ache, fever, cough, stuffy nose and fatigue. While anyone can get the flu, the elderly are more susceptible to it because the immune system does become weaker with the passing years. It also means that the flu can lead to pneumonia, if not treated on time. The research done by Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, US, believes that 71-85 percent flu-related deaths in occur in people around the age of 65 or more. “Again, Homeostenosis and decreased immunity with ageing puts an older adult at increased risk of infections,” explains Dr. Gangavati, adding, “the immune system requires more time to be activated in an older adult and hence produces less responses to infection leading to more complications secondary to infections.”
If you feel that you’ve got the flu, visit a doctor right away.
Wash your hands frequently and if possible, avoid people who have the flu.
Get the flu and pneumococcal vaccines annually.
“Fortify your immune system with fruits and vegetables rich in vitamins and minerals,” shares Tenaz Rao, a 65-year-old silver who adds an assortment of vegetables to her soups, drinks homemade fruit juices, and takes care to eat a balanced diet.
Take a multi-vitamin.
Try drinking home-brewed teas made with medicinal herbs to keep your immune system healthy.
Diabetes: Though diabetes is a risk to anyone at any age, especially in our stressed-out urban lives, the risk is even higher for people over 55 years age. In countries like the USA, more than 25 percent people over the age of 60 have this health condition. When a person has diabetes, they have a very high level of blood sugar, which leads to complications like damage to the kidneys, nerves, eyes as well as stroke or heart disease. Some of the early signs to look out for are fatigue, extreme thirst or hunger, blurry eyesight, and a frequent need to urinate.
“Going for brisk walks; avoiding processed foods; regular check-ups to diagnose pre-diabetes, and controlling your blood pressure by limiting alcohol and smoking are some ways to keep diabetes at bay,” shares Dr. Gangavati. She adds that if your physician has recommended losing weight, then that should be taken seriously. Exercise regularly and eat whole foods rich in nutrients and low in sugar. Also, avoid deep-fried foods.“Moderation is the key to a healthy lifestyle,” adds Mita Banerjee, a 61-year-old silver, who leads an active lifestyle.
Heart Disease: As you grow older, your heart, which is a muscle, becomes less efficient and has to work much harder to pump blood through your body. Also, fatty deposits might build-up in the blood vessels of the heart, leading to loss of elasticity. This combination means a heart that’s not that efficient with blocked arteries that prevent the blood flowing properly throughout the body. This can lead to hypertension, stroke, and heart attack.
The classic signs of a heart attack include shortness of breath, discomfort, nausea or lightheadedness, but women in the throes of a heart attack may not experience very intense chest pain. They might experience more shortness of breath, sweating, sudden fatigue, and pain in the stomach, back, arms or the jaw. A stroke might include symptoms like difficulty talking properly, drooping of the face and weakness in the arms.
“Eat a wholesome, balanced diet that’s low in sodium and saturated fats,” suggests Dr. Gupta. Exercise regularly. Dr. Gupta suggests walking as this is the most affordable and best exercise for almost everyone.
Reduce alcohol consumption and cut down on your smoking.
Get your cholesterol levels and blood pressure checked regularly.
Incontinence: Women over the age of 50 are more likely to have urinary incontinence. This is because the pelvic muscles lose strength, and aren’t able to control the bladder as well as they did before. Some of the other reasons for incontinence after menopause include less elasticity in the vaginal tissue and thinning of the lining of the urethra. This leads to a few types of incontinence: stress incontinence, which means that you leak out some urine when you laugh, sneeze or cough; urge incontinence, when the need to urinate comes very suddenly; nocturia, where some women feel the need to use the bathroom several times at night; and, painful urination, which may happen because urinary tract infections that some may get more frequently after menopause.
“Tighten your pelvic floor by doing Kegel exercises,” suggests Dr. Gupta. Try to do three sets of 10 of these exercises every day.
Limit your consumption of alcoholic beverages as well as soda, tea and coffee as these will fill up your bladder more quickly.
Keep your weight in check because if you’re on the heavier side, then this will put pressure on your bladder.
Osteoporosis: When you age, your body absorbs your old bone tissue faster than it can create new bone tissue, which makes your bones weaker. This condition is called osteoporosis. The bones become so thin and fragile that they can easily break when you fall or sometimes, while you are going about your daily lives. It is estimated that 1.5 million fractures happen every year because of osteoporosis. Women are more susceptible to osteoporosis because they lose more bone mass right after menopause.
According to a study done in 2015 by Jyoti Thulkar and Shalini Singh, “one out of three women between age group of 50-60 years in India suffers from osteoporosis and Indian women have an early age of onset of osteoporosis as compared to western counterparts.”
Even though osteoporosis is common, there are ways to keep it at bay.
Since osteoporosis doesn’t have any symptoms, it’s a good idea to schedule a bone density test. This is called a DEXA scan and it checks your bone health.
Check with your doctor about taking calcium supplements.
Also, include calcium-rich foods in your diet like green, leafy vegetables, milk products like homemade cottage cheese, tofu and yogurt. “Women, whether they are young or old, should drink a glass of milk everyday to get enough calcium,” advises Dr. Gupta, adding that including some kind of calcium-rich food in every meal, is a good idea.
“Include some weight-bearing exercises in your fitness routine as these help to build bone density and muscle strength,” shares Mita Banerjee, who does yoga asanas and exercises with dumbbells a few times a week.
Dr. Gangavati advises women to get adequate calcium replacement (1000 mg per day with diet and supplements) and Vitamin D replacement (mainly by supplements). “Sun exposure between 11 am- 1 pm for 15-20 minutes is also necessary,” she says, adding that if you’re taking Vitamin D supplements then it’s important to not over indulge in them as too much of it can be harmful.
Depression: Many women suffer silently as they battle with depression, which also impairs their daily functioning. It is estimated that 7% of the elderly population suffer from unipolar depression. Post-menopausal women are more prone to suffering from depression because when there is a dip in the level of oestrogen in the body, mood-regulating brain chemicals like norepinephrine, dopamine and serotonin also get disrupted, which can lead to depression. Also, women who’ve had hormone-related mood issues like severe PMS or postpartum depression, are at a higher risk of getting depression.
“The most common reason for depression setting in women over 55 is the “empty nest” syndrome as well as the hormonal upheaval of menopause,” says Prachi Vaish, a clinical psychologist who runs www.HopeNetwork.in. “Also, husbands and wives suddenly do not have anything to talk about when they kids leave home. This and the lack of life goals can lead to depression.”
Take some time out everyday to nourish yourself. This could be as simple as 15-minutes to read a good book, or listen to music. “Spending some exclusive ‘me time’ can help you rediscover yourself,” says Vaish.
“Take up a new hobby to ward off depression and feel good about learning a new skill,” suggests Dr. Gupta.
Make time to exercise regularly. Whether it’s a short walk, 20 minutes of yoga or even an hour of golf, exercise will trigger endorphins, those happy hormones that’ll help in preventing depression. “Yoga is one of those exercises that helps keep my body fit, the bones strong and the mind fresh and happy,” quips Rao, who has been practicing yoga for almost 10 years now. For you, it might be Tai Chi or Pilates that floats your boat. So make sure to find a form of exercise that you enjoy and make time for it a few times a week.
“Try re-connecting with your spouse by spending time together, traveling, learning a new skill or talking about any topic, except the kids,” adds Vaish.
Try talking to a therapist or even a good friend, if you feel an issue is weighing you down.
Ultimately, if you need treatment, don’t hesitate to reach out to a health practitioner or therapist for medication and therapy to treat your depression.
Anxiety: Anxiety is one of the least talked about health issues that women over 55 suffer from. Often undiagnosed or undertreated, studies in the US show that 18 percent of people over 60 suffer from anxiety issues. A study published in 2011 using data collected by Collaborative Psychiatric Epidemiology Studies says that women are more likely than men to get anxiety disorders*
“Women have more anxiety disorders than men due to chemical differences, hormonal changes and different responses to neurotransmitters,” explains Dr. Gangavati. Anxiety is a mental health issue, wherein the affected person cannot stop worrying about a problem, situation or even the future, to the extent that sometimes it can hamper day-to-day living. Anxiety can even lead to panic attacks, high blood pressure, palpitations, dizziness and insomnia.
If you suffer from any of these symptoms or suspect that you have an anxiety disorder, do not hesitate to reach out for help. Visiting a psychotherapist or a psychiatrist is a good place to begin. If you can find a collaborative care model, where allied health professionals work in tandem with primary care physicians, then that might be one of the best ways to address anxiety issues.
If you feel yourself getting anxious about an issue, talk to a trusted friend, your spouse or even a psychotherapist. Don’t let the anxiety fester to the point that it leads to an anxiety attack.
“Stay social and meet with your friends regularly, to stay happy,” advises Dr. Gupta.
Try writing three pages in long-hand in a journal first thing in the morning. A technique that helps dump all those thoughts in your mind on a page, it’s known to calm people down and get a handle on their problem.
Take up a social cause. “Helping others who are in worse situations than us can often help one get a better perspective of one’s problems,” explains Mita Banerjee, who founded a social organization called Team Miracle in her fifties. “The feel-good factor of this kind of work also helps work through one’s own anxieties.”
“Understand what events causes anxiety and try to avoid these and if unavoidable, try to alleviate this by doing breathing exercises,” advises Dr. Gangavati.
So whether you are in your late 50s, mid 60s or early 70s, do pay some attention to your health. Arm yourself with information, re-create your lifestyle to stay more active, mentally and physically, nourish yourself with nutrient-rich foods, and nurture yourself by doing more of what you love. Stay healthy, stay happy in your silver years.
All photographs have been used for representation purpose only. The featured image on top depicts a group of active seniors participating in an exercise demonstration. Photograph: Silver Talkies